Friday, December 9, 2011

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

by Sheila Connolly

Recently I've been asked to speak to two different organizations, one for writers, one for library mystery readers. The topics for each are very broad—something along the lines of, "how I became a writer." I'm more than happy to tell people about how (and why) I did it, but I'm becoming more and more aware that I and most of my writer friends are the last of the dinosaurs.

Many of the writers I know personally and online are my age—that is, not young. Many of us came late to writing, because we were busy with other things like marriage, families and earning a living. Most of us are thrilled to have finally arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time and the desire and the accumulated wisdom to write, and some have done quite well despite the late start.

But the experience will never be the same again, and I'm not even sure it's worth telling people about. Here's how far back my writing experience goes:
  • I learned to type on a manual typewriter in summer school. I graduated to my family's chugging electric typewriter (with a fabric ribbon), which saw me through college. When I started working, it was a treat to have a machine that could correct what I typed—no more Wite-Out or trying to erase without digging a hole in the paper (and does anyone remember carbon paper?).
  • The first computer I ever saw was on a high school field trip to Bell Labs in New Jersey. It took up a small room. In my senior year I took the first computer science class my high school offered. We had to go to a local university to use a computer, and we lined up to make our punch cards and then to take our turn on the refrigerator-sized computer, which lived in an air-conditioned room. I still have the plastic template for making Fortran diagrams.
  • We used to send things by mail, now relabeled snail-mail, using paper and stamps. Then we had to wait days or weeks for responses, and could never be sure the letter even got where it was going.
  • We used to go to a library to find books to read. I'm happy that my grandmother loved to visit bookstores, treating a trip to one as entertainment, and she always came home with a book, which she would then pass on to my mother. So I grew up with books all around me, and a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica (remember that?) for research.
When I began to write seriously, barely a decade ago, it was on a computer (the kind with a bulky monitor that took up half the desktop, with a tower blocking my feet underneath the desk). When I finished a manuscript, I would write a query letter on paper and mail it to agents and editors, along with a synopsis and maybe some sample pages, with an enclosed Self Addressed Stamped Envelope. Then for weeks I'd approach my mailbox with fear and trembling, dreading the sight of that wrinkled white #10 envelope, which usually held a rejection—far too often, a photocopy with some variation of "sorry, not for me." If by some wonderful chance someone wanted to see more of what I'd written, I'd send them a paper copy and hope it didn't get chewed up or lost by the postal system.

Fast forward to the present. We're still writing on computers (although they've gotten much smaller and thinner), but now we can do all the research we want online, for both the book and about the agent/publisher we're submitting to, and send the submission as an email attachment. We can verify that it arrived—and we can get a rejection in minutes (especially if it's another "sorry, not for me"). We can read about other writers' experience on blogs and loops dedicated to writing. And if we're lucky enough to find someone who loves our work and wants to publish it, we can edit it electronically, and then sell it the same way.

All this has happened in the last ten years. Publishing as we knew it is in the midst of dramatic and rapid changes, and the long-established print publishers are scrabbling to keep up. Writers now have the option of bypassing the old paths and selling their books themselves online. But we dinosaurs still yearn to hold a physical book in our hands. We're the last of our kind.

So what do I tell the groups who invited me to talk? I have one foot in the past, one in the present. And by the time of the first scheduled talk next month, it all may have changed again.

Are things better or worse today?


Sandra Parshall said...

If it's any consolation, I feel the same way, Sheila. :-) I'm glad I was finally able to get published traditionally before the e-revolution picked up steam. I know the future can't be stopped, and I'm happy that so many more writers are now able to put their work before readers, but I love physical books.

Anonymous said...

Your excellent words resonate with so many people - you'll never know how many they touch!! The world of writers is spinning so fast it makes our heads spin! What was true 24 hours ago will be different by the next time the sun comes up -- or maybe by then the sun will come down or around or god knows what! Thanks for sharing.
Thelma Straw in Manhattan